> FLORENT SCHMITT (1870 - 1958) - Jun2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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FLORENT SCHMITT (1870 - 1958)

The French composer Florent Schmitt belongs to the legion of composers from the first half of the 20th century whose music, while important in its day, has fallen into obscurity, and is not well represented on disc. It is easy to point the finger at the historical caution of commercial record companies, but Schmitt’s demise in popularity extends back well into his own lifetime, and has sociological and cultural roots. Like Strauss, Rachmaninoff, and so many others, he refused to shed the skin of his particular musical tradition, and suffered the aspersions of those who felt at the time that not joining the ranks of the avant-garde was worthy of contempt. But Schmitt resists easy classification - a fact that he would have enjoyed immensely. He stoutly refused to acknowledge affinities between his music and other composers, saying that was the job of pedants and analysts. Although a traditionalist in many ways, he was hardly the reactionary that Stravinsky and others stigmatized him as in later life, and his music often employed surprisingly modern harmonic and rhythmic idioms. His reputation as a conservative who "lived to see the times outgrow him" is based on no stronger a premise than the fact that his music continued to adhere to traditional formal moulds, and Romantic sources of subject matter. A tinge of bitterness haunted his old age, acutely aware as he was of this stigma, in spite of dogged efforts on his part in the later works to continue to strive for new modes of expression.

Prior to 1920, Schmitt was considered to be in the front rank of "advanced", non-conformist musical composers. He was a member of the Club des Apaches in the early years of the 20th century, which also included Ravel, Delage, Caplet, Viñes, and the poet Klingsor. Schmitt was a strong influence on Stravinsky during the latter’s Paris years. Le Sacre du printemps owes a great deal to La Tragédie de Salomé, and in 1912 Stravinsky wrote to Schmitt that his Salomé score was "one of the greatest masterpieces of modern music" - an opinion he was to reverse decades later.

His reputation as a composer has rested for some 75 years now upon two or three works: the choral/orchestral setting of Psalm 47, the orchestral suite from La tragédie de Salomé, and to a lesser extent the Quintet, Op.51, for piano and strings. These works were created with broad brushstrokes, and their grandiosity has not been to everyone’s taste, either at their premieres or today. The monopoly on popularity that they enjoy amongst his works is a pity, not because they are unworthy, but because they represent only one of Schmitt’s several compositional idioms. While it is true that Schmitt gained his greatest popular successes with these scores shortly after their creation, there exist so many equally fine or greater scores than these, known only to a small coterie of enthusiasts. His substantial output of 137 opuses embraces all the genres of the time except opera. Among the many finely-wrought orchestral scores, one could mention in particular Oriane et le Prince d’Amour, Antoine et Cléopatre, his Symphony #2, and the film score Salammbô. The Sonate libre en deux parties enchaînées for violin and piano is an astounding work that is fortunately finely represented on disc, and evinces a similar harmonic and rhythmic complexity to that of the Symphonie concertante for piano and orchestra. Both works are highly recommended listening. His setting of Andersen’s Une semaine du petit-elfe "Ferme l’Oeil" for piano 4-hands (later a ballet score for orchestra) has some delightful moments, but you will have to be lucky enough to find the 1958 Columbia LP with Robert and Gaby Casadesus, because it hasn’t been recorded since.

A fine pianist in his own right, Schmitt wrote prolifically and wonderfully idiomatically for the instrument. There are 162 compositions for solo piano, and his 88 pieces for piano duet place him in the front rank of 20th-century composers in that medium. Almost none of the piano works is presently available on disc - a lamentable fact that the present writer/pianist hopes to redress in the near future with an intégrale of the piano music. A fine, virtuosic rendition of the three Rapsodies for two pianos is available, however. The CDs of his piano music by Pascal Le Corré, Alain Raes, Annie d’Arco, and others have been long deleted, but Werner Bärtschi’s 1982 recording of the three pieces that constitute Ombres, Op.60, has recently been reissued, as has John Ogdon’s 1972 recording of Deux mirages, Op.70. In the former you will discover perhaps Schmitt’s finest writing for the keyboard, worthy of his long-time friend Ravel, and very similar in style.

Schmitt was a sophisticated composer, able to "jump tracks" stylistically and create convincing works of art in different styles. The early Soirs, Op.5 are representative of an emerging personal style based upon the heritage provided by his teachers Massenet and Fauré, intermingled with influences from younger sources such as Delius, whom he befriended while competing for the Prix de Rome. (He made an arrangement of parts of Delius’s opera Irmelin for piano.) The Reflets d’Allemagne, Op.28, the Feuillets de voyage, Op.26, and the Trois valses nocturnes, Op.31, are delightful models of the fashionable salon style of Moszkowski and Chabrier, choc-à-bloc with delightful and unexpected turns of phrase, and "doing the genre one better" at its own game. There exists no more adept a facsimile of Schumann’s style than Retour à l’endroit familier from the Feuillets de voyage. In another vein, pieces such as Glas (from Musiques intimes, Op.29), Feuilles mortes (from Quatre pièces, Op.46) and Sur un vieux petit cimetière (from Crépuscules, Op.56) show a strong desire for Impressionist exploration. Ravel once stated just after the turn of the century that he had convinced himself that it was impossible to write convincingly for the piano any more, until he heard Schmitt’s Lucioles, Op.23/2 - and wrote his own Jeux d’eau as a direct result.

Much has been made of the supposedly Germanic complexity of the musical texture of some of his scores. This, combined with the Germanic origin of his Alsatian surname, easily misleads one into assuming that he was somehow "un-French", like Delius or Holst are ostensibly "un-English". Nothing could be further from the truth. Schmitt’s music is quintessentially Gallic in spirit. He was by nature passionate yet controlled, and did nothing in half measure if he believed in it strongly. In 1914 he was enlisted into military service, and went to the front line at his own request. As a person, he was by accounts quick-witted, amiable with some and abrupt with others, and caustic upon occasion, both verbally and in print. He enjoyed his powerful position as grand-high-arbiter-of-taste during the years when he wrote regular reviews for Le Temps (1929-39), as much as he enjoyed creating scandal at live concerts by shouting controversial jibes from the loges. These bursts of élan were always sparked by his sense, usually at premieres of new works, that the audience was "missing the point", and he would as readily champion aurally daunting avant-garde works as he would decry the popular. The most noteworthy incident occurred in 1933, when songs of Kurt Weill were being performed at the Salle Pleyel. Schmitt’s scandalous shouts from the audience exposed an anti-Semitic arrogance that resulted in a newspaper scandal, with words of support from Weingartner, and condemnation from just about everyone else, including the publisher Heugel, who called him an "irresponsible lunatic".

Of Schmitt’s 138 numbered opuses, roughly 1/3 have appeared on recording at one time or another. About 35 separate works are presently available, almost all of which are represented in the following list of recommended recordings. A very few works, such as La Tragédie de Salomé, Dionysiaques, and the Lied et scherzo, are presently available on more than one recording, in which case only one has been chosen for inclusion. The absence of a recording from this list is a result of the writer’s unfamiliarity with it, and should not be construed as a negative recommendation.

© Leslie De'Ath




Orchestral and concertante works -

La Tragédie de Salomé, Op.50 (complete version, 1907)

Marco Polo 8.223448 Rheinland-Pfalz Philharmonic, cond. Patrick Davin

La Tragédie de Salomé, Op.50 (ballet suite)

Mercury Living Presence 434336-2 "Dances of Death" (reissue of 1958 recording)

Detroit SO, cond. Paul Paray (with works by Liszt, Weber, Saint-Saëns & R.Strauss)

Antoine et Cléopatre, Op.69

Cybelia CY842 Rheinland-Pfalz Philharmonic

Salammbô, Op.76 (film score)

BMG (RCA Red Seal) 74321 733 952 Orchestre National d’Ile de France, cond. Jacques Mercier

Symphonie concertante, Op.82, for orchestra and piano

Valois V 4587 Huseyin Sermet, pf / Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo, cond. David Robertson- with Schmitt’s Rêves, Op.65; Soirs, Op.5 (arr. orch.)

Symphony #2, Op.137 Marco Polo 8.223689, or Patrimoine/Naxos 8.550636

Orchestre Philharmonique de Rhénanie-Palatinat, cond. Leif Segerstam - with Schmitt’s Danse d’Abisag, Op.75 Habeyssée, Op.110 Rêves, Op.65

Chamber works -

Quintette, Op.51, for piano and strings

Accord 465 810-2 or ACD 220982 (reissue) Quatuor de Berne / Werner Bärtschi, pf

Lied et Scherzo, Op.54

Praga Digitals PRD 250 156 Prague Wind Quintet / Czech Nonet with Schmitt’s Suite en rocaille, Op.84 A tour d’anches, Op.97 Chants alizés, Op.125

Sonate libre en deux parties enchaînées, Op.68

Valois V 4679 Régis Pasquier, vln / Huseyin Sermet, pf

Accord 461 759-2 Jean Fournier, vln / Ginette Doyen, pf

Hasards, Op.96 Régis Pasquier, vln / Bruno Pasquier, vla / Roland Pidoux, vc / Haridas Greif, pf

Valois V 4679

Suite, Op.133, for trumpet & piano Eric Aubier, tpt

Pierre Verany 798011


Choral works -

En bonnes voix, Op.91

ATMA Classique ALCD 2 1023 Schmitt, Oeuvres chorales Le Jeune Opéra du Québec / Les Chantres musiciens, cond. Mariane Patenaude with Schmitt’s À contre-voix, Op.104 Six choeurs, Op.81 Trois trios, Op.99

Piano works -

Soirs, Op.5

Paradisum PDS-CD11 "French Miniatures" John Clegg, pf (with works of Milhaud, Koechlin & Ibert) Ombres, Op.64

Accord 461 759-2 (reissue) Werner Bärtschi, pf with Schmitt’s Sonate libre en deux parties enchaînées, Op.68

Mirages, Op.70/1-2

EMI 5 65996 2 (reissue) John Ogdon, pf (with sonatas by Dutilleux & Dukas)

Feuillets de voyage, Op.26/1-5, for piano 4-hands Four Hands Music FHMD 9674 "Moszkowski’s World, vol.4"Isabel Beyer/Harvey Dagul, pf 4-hands

Trois rapsodies, Op.53, for 2 pianos

Valois V 4679 Huseyin Sermet / Kun Woo Paik


Dionysiaques, Op.62, for military band

Caprice 21384 Stockholm Symphonic Wind Orch., cond. David Porcelijn (with works by Stravinsky, Naumann & Dvorak)

Quatuor pour saxophones, Op.102

Simax 1123 Saxofon Concentus (with quartets by Singelee & Gotkovsky)


Various combinations -

Erato (Ultima) 5873-85636-2 (2-CD reissue) Various artists

includes La Tragédie de Salomé, Op.50 (orch) Psaume 47, Op.38 (soli, chorus, orch) Janiana, Op.52 (orch) Suite en rocaille, Op.84 (chamber) Lied et Scherzo, Op.54 (chamber)

© Leslie De'Ath

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